I CAN'T LOSE MY CHILD!
Single mother Caitlin Rogers lived for just one thing: her little girl, Emily. So when her rights as a parent were threatened, Caitlin single-mindedly prepared to fight for her daughter by any means necessary. She just didn't count on distraction from the new next neighbor next door....
Bret Tanner was a man who didn't like complications in his life. But his gruff military demeanor couldn't mask his feelings for Caitlin and Emily—the little girl who reminded him of the son he'd left behind long ago. Cobbling a family together wouldn't be easy...but it might be the only thing worth fighting for.
Lieutenant Brett Tanner had never done anything so stupid.
Not since he joined the U.S. Navy ten years ago.
And he damn sure didn't know why he did it now, after all this time. Curiosity, he supposed, but for some reason he felt compelled to drive by the old house, to peer from a safe distance. To make sure his kid was okay.
He rode his black Harley Softail past the old high school, where he'd first met Kelly, his son's mother, and turned left at the fire station. The old neighborhood appeared the same, but he knew better.
The bike made another left onto Periwinkle Court, as though it didn't need a rider, then slowed to a stop.
Brett cut the engine before he reached the cul de sac, where the two-story house stood in silent testimony of the things that had remained the same.
And the things that hadn't.
The outside walls boasted creamy-white stucco. And the wood trim was painted a pale teal--something Kelly had repeatedly told him had needed to be done. Something he'd never gotten around to, since he'd been deployed most of the short time they'd been together.
The grass, obviously fertilized, was a deep shade of green and had been newly mown, the edges cut straight. A rainbow spray of flowers grew along the sidewalk--from the front porch to the drive, where a late-model, white Chevy pickup and a blue minivan rested.
For a moment, he had a masochistic urge to leave the Harley parked at the curb and saunter up the walk like he still owned the place.
But he remained rooted to the spot.
On a couple occasions he'd reconsidered his decision to walk away from his son without a fight. But that was only after having one too many beers. When he was thinking clearly, he knew he'd done the right thing.
His son, a little boy Brett hadn't seen since he was two, deserved to be happy.
Why confuse the poor kid and screw him up now? Too much time had passed, and David Hopkins was the only dad Justin had ever known.
Besides, with the duty Brett pulled, he'd be in and out of the kid's life like he was pushing through a revolving door. What good was that?
Brett didn't know how long he studied the house, the new fence, the bright yellow swing set in the backyard. But he stood there long enough to see that it was just the kind of home every kid ought to have.
One of those purple-flowered trees Kelly had always liked now grew in the front yard. A bright blue flag, adorned with a picture of a birdhouse, hung from the porch overhang, and a wrought iron bench with a floral seat cushion sat by the front door, where a wooden welcome sign hung.
It was vivid proof of all that was right in Kelly's world--now that Brett was no longer a part of it.
The relationship had been wrong from the get-go, he supposed. They'd squabbled about most everything. But when Kelly got pregnant, he'd insisted they get married for the kid's sake. And when she'd reconnected with her old boyfriend, he'd wanted an amicable split for the same reason.
So Brett joined the ranks of absent fathers. But at least he wasn't a deadbeat dad. The Navy deducted an allotment from his pay for child support. And each month he sent Kelly a personal check for an extra two hundred dollars. For incidentals. Stuff his kid might need. Something a dad ought to provide.
It was also a way to keep in touch, to let Kelly know where he was--in case his son needed him. In case she wanted to send him a picture or something.
She hadn't sent him squat, not even a thank-you. But he hadn't pressed her, even though something deep inside fought his passive reaction.
Instead, he'd taken out an additional $250,000 life insurance policy--above and beyond what the Navy would provide his son--should something happen to him.
It had been his way of doing right by the kid he'd fathered.
And so had his letting go, staying away and allowing his child to grow up in a loving, peaceful home. Little Justin had two parents to raise him, two people who could be civil to one another. It was bound to be a hell of a lot better childhood than Brett had suffered through.
Just then, a little boy wearing a pair of jeans, a white T-shirt and a red baseball cap came out of the neighbor's side yard. He ran a short distance down the sidewalk, leaped over a small hedge in the front of the house Brett had been watching, then dashed inside yelling, "Mom, I'm home."
That was his son. Justin.
Emotion clogged his throat, and his eyes went misty at the thought of what he'd given up.
But Justin was better off this way. Happy and settled in a home where two parents loved him. But that didn't mean the decision wasn't tearing Brett up inside.
Justin had been only four months old when Kelly told Brett she wanted to end their marriage, that she'd hooked up with her old boyfriend from college.
Brett's first thought was to tell her to give Justin to him and get the hell out of his life, but he'd managed a calm tone and used all the tact he could muster.
"What about the baby?" he'd asked her, when she told him over the phone that things weren't working between them and she wanted a divorce.
"What about the baby?"
"I thought maybe I could have him, since you and David probably want to have a family of your own."
"I'm Justin's mother," Kelly had cried into the telephone. "I'm not giving him up. He needs me, not a dad who's never home."
A sense of anger, frustration and hostility had come over him, making him want to fight her for his son. And he didn't like it. Didn't like what it meant, what he knew it would lead to, so he'd shut up, stepped back and let go.
Besides, what would Brett have done with the baby? Take him away from his mother? No way. Kelly loved the child. He knew that.
Visitation had been established through the uncontested divorce, and Brett had seen his son from time to time, but because of his military career, it wasn't very often.
With Kelly and her new husband present, things had been awkward. But on the last visit, when Justin was two, the toddler had acted kind of timid. Kelly had said Brett's presence was confusing him.
Maybe so, because Brett felt uneasy around his son, too. Hell, with his unstable upbringing, he didn't feel nearly as qualified to father his son as David was. The guy was a schoolteacher, for God's sake. So Brett had stepped back.
It hadn't been easy, and a couple of years ago, when Justin had gotten older, Brett contemplated stepping in and insisting Kelly tell the boy Darren wasn't his real dad, but Brett was afraid that would only screw the kid up and make him a hellion, like Brett had once been.
So he'd sucked it up and made the biggest sacrifice he would ever make. And time hadn't done a damn thing about easing the grief.
The same familiar ache settled deep in his chest, and his eyes began to water. Damn. He felt like bawling. And he hadn't cried in years. Not after he'd grown battle weary and lashed out at his warring parents in a fit of rebellion that damn near landed him in jail.
Brett started the engine and turned the Harley around. It was time to head back to Bayside. Back to the condo he was house-sitting for a Navy buddy. Back to a big-screen TV, a fridge full of beer and a crotchety old cat named Fred.
But his mind would remain on the vision he'd seen, the perfect life Kelly had created for his son.
His parents' nasty divorce and vicious custody battle had lasted most of his growing-up years and done a real number on him. For that reason, he'd sworn never to do that to a child of his own.
"I'd walk away first," he'd told Kelly, "rather than make my son a pawn, make him suffer like I did."
And Brett had kept his word--even though it nearly killed him not to be a part of Justin's life.
At the stop sign, he gunned the engine, then headed back to the condominium complex where he would spend his shore duty. But his chest still ached and his eyes stung.
What the hell was the matter with him?
Brett Tanner didn't cry. He sucked it up and did his duty. He did the right thing.
After all, he'd chosen the wrong road too many times in the past.
As tears welled in his eyes, he cursed the evidence of his weakness, then tried to lose the pain and anger as he sped through the city streets. He turned into the Ocean Breeze complex, just as a white Volvo appeared from nowhere.
A loud metallic thud sounded when his bike slammed into the car. His body flew through the air, then slid along the driveway.
He didn't feel any pain at first. Not until his head cleared and he felt the sting of asphalt on his knees and arm, followed by an agonizing ache where his shoulder had hit the ground first.
The impact had sent his two-hundred-dollar sunglasses flying, probably smashing them to smithereens.
How was he going to explain this to the other driver? Or to a police officer, if one showed up on the scene? Or to any of his buddies, if they ever caught wind of this?
He'd had his head up his ass, thinking about his son, about Kelly. About the raw pain in his chest and the tears that clouded his sight.
And he'd caused an accident.
A black shadow struck the car with a vengeance. Caitlin Rogers slammed on her brakes, but much too late to avoid an accident. She threw the gearshift into Park, and glanced in her rearview mirror to see her four-year-old daughter sitting wide-eyed in the car seat in back.
"Baby, are you okay?"
Emily nodded. "What happened, Mommy?"
"I ran into someone. You wait here."
Caitlin swung open the door and rushed to check on the motorcyclist she'd just struck.
Had she killed him? Maimed him? Oh, God. Please let him be okay.
How could she have been so blind, so irresponsible?
She'd been so caught up in the trouble looming over her that she'd been on autopilot and hadn't even seen the motorcycle turn into the complex. All she'd been thinking about these past few days was that she might lose custody of the child she'd loved and raised since birth, the precious little girl she hoped to adopt.
Caitlin looked at the dazed man and saw a nasty abrasion on his chin, a blood-speckled white T-shirt, a scraped leather aviator jacket, jeans that were torn and bloody at the knee. "I'm so sorry. I didn't see you. Are you all right?"
The man slowly got to his feet, and she had to tilt her chin to look him in the eyes--glassy blue eyes that looked watery. Gosh, had she hurt him that badly? Had his injuries made him teary-eyed?
"It's all my fault," she said. "But I have insurance."
He grimaced and rubbed his shoulder. "Didn't anyone ever tell you not to admit blame in a traffic accident?"
"No. But I was thinking about something else and not paying attention. I'm really sorry."
"Don't worry about it." He glanced at the raw and bloodied knuckles of his right hand. Then he looked at the scraped and battered bike, the dented gas tank, the broken mirror, the bent handlebars, the scratched leather seat that looked like a fancy saddle. He clicked his tongue, blew out a ragged sigh and rolled his eyes.
Gosh, she felt terrible about this. Thank God he was wearing a helmet. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine. Really." He limped to the big, black motorcycle that lay on its side, then shut off the engine.
He didn't appear fine. But Caitlin had a feeling he'd looked pretty sharp on that bike before she ran into him.
Was that a Harley? Those things were expensive. And her insurance rates would probably skyrocket at a time when she needed every cent she could find.
She eased closer, and he looked up at her with the most incredible sky-blue eyes she'd ever seen. He had a scar over his right brow that made him look manly. Rugged. Not afraid of a fight.
Was she crazy? Maybe she'd hit her head on the steering wheel or something. What provoked her to gawk at the good-looking stranger like a star-struck teenybopper?
He looked at his mangled bike, grimaced and shook his head.
"I'm really sorry," she said again, the words sounding useless.
"Don't be." He caught her eye, drew her deep into his gaze. "Just for the record, the accident was my fault."
"I'll call the police," she said, as she turned and walked back to the car for her cell phone.
"Wait." He reached out, caught her by the arm and turned her around to face him. "It's no big deal. Let's not bother filing an accident report. I'll just pay you for the damages to your car."
She needed to watch her expenses, since she expected some hefty legal bills soon. Lawyers were expensive, and she intended to retain the best one she could find--even if it cost her every last dollar she'd saved. Because, if Caitlin wouldn't fight for her daughter, who would?